Financial Services (Rural Communities)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:00 am on 29th March 2011.

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Photo of Roger Williams Roger Williams Liberal Democrat, Brecon and Radnorshire 11:00 am, 29th March 2011

I thank my hon. Friend for that point. When a company such as Lloyds TSB indicates that it will make branch closures, we can readily anticipate where those closures will be made. Indeed, I have some statistics about other companies and I do not wish to concentrate on Barclays. It is just that Barclays is in the forefront of my mind at the moment. It is not only Barclays that has been closing branches. In 2010, HSBC closed 52, Barclays 40, NatWest 18 and Lloyds TSB 11. As my hon. Friend pointed out, more closures are in the pipeline.

Online banking is, to an extent, a generational problem. To draw a parallel, in a debate on fuel poverty in this Chamber, it was pointed out that many people now have the opportunity to take advantage of competition in the fuel sector. A number of hon. Members were in the debate, but only two of us had never switched suppliers—me and my right hon. Friend Vince Cable. We were, I think, of a different generation. Many people who bank at small rural branches are not willing or readily able to switch to online banking. I know that my hon. Friend Mr Williams will be making a point about access to broadband and the internet, and such points were made very well in the rural broadband debate that Rory Stewart secured in Westminster Hall last week. Many of these people do not have access to fast, safe internet, so even if the will is there it might not be possible for them to bank online. I commend the Government for the excellent steps that they have already taken on rural broadband, but more must be done so that rural businesses, people and communities are not left behind.

I shall finish, as far as Barclays is concerned, by saying that during the process I have been speaking about it was announced that Barclays had made a profit of £6.1 billion, and that its chief executive, Bob Diamond, was receiving a £6.5 million bonus. Bob Diamond’s fan club in Rhayader is not full, and if anyone wants to make an application to join I am sure that there is plenty of capacity. Having said that, Barclays did not take any public money during the banking crisis, for which it should be applauded. It certainly benefited, however, from the liquidity measures and the quantitative easing that the Government implemented to help the banks through the credit crunch, so it should show more thought for its customers, whose taxes assisted in keeping it afloat during that difficult time. I should, of course, point out that it is not only Barclays that has been making closures, as my hon. Friend Hywel Williams has pointed out.

I understand the commercial pressures that the banks are under, but they must understand the effects that closures have on tourism, economic development and customers in rural areas. What is the solution? The Campaign for Community Banking Services suggests that we set up a community bank—one centrally run facility in the community with face-to-face services operating on behalf of all banks and building societies. There would be only one set of overheads, and the massively reduced costs would be covered by all the participating banks. I understand that it would use the same technology as that which links ATMs, so the set-up costs would be not too large. A similar system in the United States has proved very successful. It seems an ideal solution, with our constituents continuing to receive the service that they so desperately need. Will the Minister outline any discussions that he has had on a similar community banking facility for the UK?

I want to say a few words about mutuals and credit unions. I am a member of the Brecon credit union, am well aware of the part that such organisations can play, and have recently met with representatives of the building societies that have remained in the mutual sector. They do a very good job of providing services in local areas, and are able to lend not just on an arithmetic income multiple but on their better understanding of the local economy and of the quality of employment in which many people who wish to get a mortgage are involved. The smaller mutual building societies complain that the reporting and regulatory requirements are more fitted to larger financial organisations. They would like the Government’s approach to be more risk related, and some of the very onerous regulations to be moderated in some way.

It is not just the closure of bank branches that is of concern. I am very pleased that the Government have announced that they intend to maintain, as far as possible, the post offices, which are the financial and social hub of rural areas but which have too frequently been closed. The Communication Workers Union says that 1,000 post offices—one in 10—closed in 2010, and about 2,500, many in rural areas, have been closed in recent years.

Although I am aware that mail volumes are falling, and that other services that branches offer, such as benefit payments, are moving online, I ask that the Minister, in conjunction with his colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, seriously take on board the value and worth of rural post offices. According to Age Concern, 44% of pensioners use post offices to collect their pensions, 43% use them for access to cash and 56% use them to pay their bills. At both a local level and a Government level, we must do what we can to prevent widespread closures and long-term temporary closures. There has been an announcement that the long hoped for post bank will not be proceeded with, but does the Minister have any thoughts on whether a similar facility could be set up to address many of the issues that we are debating today?

The next issue that I want to talk about could be a huge problem for all our constituents. The cheque has been an integral part of our lives for more than 350 years, but there are plans to phase it out by November 2018. We currently write more than 4 million cheques per day, and despite the decline in usage we will still be writing 650 million a year in 2018. Cheques are essential and irreplaceable in many situations, and they are particularly important in rural areas. There is currently no easier, safer or more efficient way to pass money from one person or organisation to another.

Cheques are easy to use, virtually fraud proof, can be posted or handed over anywhere, and are cheap, safe, popular and understood by all. The use of credit and payment cards has, of course, hugely altered payment methods by virtually replacing cash in most everyday transactions, but only larger businesses can afford the technology to install card machines and we are light years away from the day when every individual will be able to receive payments by card.

There is only one reason to get rid of cheque books— profit. Cheque books are more expensive for banks than credit or debit cards. Handling paper is not efficient according to the bean counters, and as all British taxpayers know to their cost, banks are driven by many things other than providing a convenient service for their customers. The abolition of the cheque will lead to an increase in the black economy, as people will start paying cash when a cheque would have previously been used. It could also lead to an increase in crime, as older and more vulnerable people who are unable or unwilling to use other methods start storing significant amounts of cash at home. We do not currently have a viable alternative to the cheque, and until we find one not even the thought of it being abolished should be entertained. Will the Minister ensure that no decisions are made on the abolition of cheques before a viable alternative is found?

In conclusion, these are difficult times for rural constituents, with rising oil prices and the necessary cuts to public services. People need good and proper access to financial services so that they can grow their small business, obtain a mortgage for their first home, or cash and pay in their cheques so the local economy can grow and flourish. Thank you, Mr Caton. I open the floor to my colleagues.